How a group of dissident artists was almost catapulted to international stardom by a marketing error

The story of Moscow's underground art of the 1970s


Once the Soviet Union began to liberalise under Khrushchev, several dozen innovative and actively questioning artists suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere. Some of these are now viewed as the leading figures of Non-Conformist art: Oscar Rabin, Dmitry Plavinsky, Anatoly Zverev, Lydia Masterkova, Vladimir Yakovlev, Boris Sveshnikov, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev and Oleg Tselkov.

The first collectors of their work were the American foreign correspondent Edmund Stevens and his Russian wife Nina. Stevens died in 1992 aged 81, having covered the Soviet Union from the last years of Stalin onwards. He enjoyed exceptional privileges, such as being allowed to own an historic house in Moscow’s Old Arbat, which led inevitably to speculation that he was a spy, which he always denied. From the 1960s onwards the couple entertained the artists at barbecues where whisky flowed like vodka and, more importantly, they bought their paintings.

Another key figure was the absurdist playwright and dissident Andrei Amalric, who became a kind of a guide to foreigners who wanted to meet the “natives”. This ruddy man was known to everyone in Moscow and could be found from morning till night in basements and attics, in friends’ studios and in embassies, where he was warmly received. When Amalric presented the Non-Conformists to those outside the Moscow scene for the first time, they took delight in this alternative art that had so miraculously sprouted out of Socialist Realism.

The embassies held selling exhibitions of Non-Conformist works, which were then taken to the US, France, Belgium, Brazil and so on. Western art critics instantly dubbed these paintings the true face of Russian art of the second half of the 20th century. At that point Russian collectors, including George Costakis, Lev Nutovich, Mikhail Grobman, Leonid Talochkin (who donated his collection to the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow) and Alexander Gleser, also began buying works by the Sixtiers (as they came to be known).

A native of Tbilisi in Georgia, Gleser met Vladimir Nemukhin, Rabin, Masterkova and others, and began to promote their work. His buyers included everyone from ambassadors to the concierge in the co-operative house where he lived. But Gleser should not be considered a mere trader. He was, and remains, an enthusiast for underground art. From the outset, his initiatives had a political component to them, but the peak of his activities came with his and Rabin’s “happening” in the waste lot of Belyaevo on 15 September 1974, which has gone down in history as the “Bulldozer Exhibition”. As the show was swept away by the authorities, the Non-Conformists were propelled to fame overnight.

Gleser emigrated soon afterwards but kept on exploiting the dissident element. On the basis of the collection he took abroad, he started a museum in Montgeron near Paris, and named it the Museum of Russian Art in Exile, with a transatlantic branch in New Jersey. Subsequently, the entire collection was bought by the US professor Norton Dodge, and later became part of the collection of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. Gleser continued to hold dozens of exhibitions, publish catalogues and produced two literary magazines, the Third Wave and the Archer.

Unfortunately, Gleser laid all the emphasis on the political rather than the aesthetic aspects of this dissident work, which obscured its artistic value in the eyes of a Western audience and slowed its progress in the global art market. When Rabin, divested of Soviet citizenship in 1977, arrived in Paris, he became anxious about the situation and protested at the labels attached to the art.

From 1977, Moscow’s underground art scene was being promoted in the magazine Apollo 77, produced in Paris by the artist Mikhail Shemyakin and the poet Constantine Kuzminsky. This publication, named after Apollon, the magazine of the Mir Iskusstva (world of art) movement (1907-17), became an encyclopedia of artefacts, photographs, manifestos, poetry and prose of the underground artists; it also reproduced numerous Non-Conformist paintings.

The preceding year, in 1976, Shemyakin organised a large exhibition of contemporary Russian art in the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot in Paris. This exhibition rapidly became a matter of dispute among emigré artists. The battleground lay between the Montgeron Museum of Russian Art in Exile (run by Gleser) and the Union of Russian Artists (directed by the artist of Russian descent Monique Vivien-Brantôme). The Union’s spokesman was the handsome Moscovite Victor Kullback. He was the main organiser of the Union’s exhibition “Les Russes à Paris” at the prestigious Galerie Bellint, much to the fury of the montgeronnais. The opening was on 17 April, 1979. The guests clinked their plastic glasses of champagne and enthusiastically discussed the masterpieces on the walls. Suddenly, in the doorway there appeared the figure of the uninvited Gleser. In one hand he held a gun, in the other, a whip. He took aim at Kullback, but the gun fortunately misfired. The police were called, Gleser was dragged towards the exit, but he gave them the slip and managed to sink his teeth into Kullback’s leg, tearing his trouser leg. Everyone fled the gallery. Only the old artist Grigory (Grégoire) Mishonts, a contemporary of Marc Chagall, beamed with joy. “Everything is just like the old days: Breton, the Surrealists, the hooligans and busted noses!” he declared.

In the 1980s, the years of perestroika, interest in the Non-Conformists was on the rise. Sotheby’s held its first auction of Russian Avant-Garde and contemporary art in Moscow in 1988, which catapulted some of them to international stardom. It was reported that 11,000 people viewed the show, and the sale total was $3.5m, a huge sum at that time, particularly in Moscow. Now there was a market for works by some of the Non-Conformists who had been collected by foreign buyers in the 1960s and 1970s. Rabin, for example, had sold his oils in 1966 for 300 rubles—quite a sum for the average Soviet—but at six rubles to the dollar, it cost a foreigner only $50. In 2007, at Sotheby’s New York Rabin’s Baths, 1966, fetched $336,000.

The outcasts of yesteryear have become the leading names in the 20th-century Russian art market: Ilya Kabakov’s painting Beetle, 1982, for example, sold for £2.93m at a 2008 Philips de Pury auction.

But there was a worm eating at this success. The dissidents were no longer dissidents—they had lost their aura—and this is why prices for these underground artists of the 1960s and 1970s remain so unstable; interest in them periodically rekindles and then dies down again.

Among the Russian collectors who acquire the “second Avant-Garde” are Igor Tsukanov (see p22), Tamaz Manasherov, Catherine and Vladimir Semenikhin, Igor Markin and Shalva Breus (see p21). Currently, some wealthy Russian collectors and Western art dealers are making attempts to revive the market for Non-Conformist works. The most conspicuous players are the Parisian galleries Le Minotaure and Russkiy Mir, and MacDougall’s auction house in London. But all in all, the Sixtiers have never properly arrived on the global art market. The blame is due to that initial marketing error of Gleser; the Soviet Union no longer exists, but this powerful art, with all its emotional light and shade, remains tightly pegged to a dissident red square.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The Non-Conformists: the story of a marketing error'